“Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place” by Melvin McLeod
Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place by Melvin McLeod, editor. (Wisdom Publications, 2006. Paperback, $16.95).
There are some books on engaged Buddhism that tend to be rather polemical or academic in style. ‘Mindful Politics’ is not one of them. Its editor hopes that it will serve as a guide or a handbook for those who wish to draw on Buddhism to help make the world a better place. His hopes are well justified. It is an anthology that draws on the accumulated experience of much learning – rich in flashes of insight and practical wisdom. Anyone who feels some connection between the transformation of self and world is sure to find some fresh perspectives and directions among its many and varied contributions.
All but a few of the contributors are American or America-based. Given the subject matter of the book, it is perhaps surprising that this bias is unexplained and barely acknowledged. And yet its rootedness in the American Buddhist experience is also a real strength. This is a book that could not have been compiled twenty or thirty years ago. It bears witness to a generation of practice in the West and engagement with real-life suffering in the world. It is a sign that the Dharma has not only taken root outside of the East but has begun to bear fruit, too. The result is a collection of pithy writings that have an immediacy and accessibility to any Western reader.
It is not, as several contributors point out, that Buddhism offers an alternative political program, nor even that it has the answer to every political question. Most of the book is about how we might bring about change, rather than what change we might seek to bring about.
There are some notable exceptions to this. The cause of peace has long been widely accepted as a Buddhist political value. To this end, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh both advocate a more effective, democratic United Nations. The Dalai Lama suggests that we each need to develop a sense of ‘universal responsibility’ for humanity. This means thinking beyond both individual and national self-interest.
Are there other basic political principles that we can agree on as Buddhists? Stephanie Kaza makes a clear, concise case for environmentalism, via non-harm, interconnectedness and systems thinking. Sulak Sivaraksa also cites interconnectedness in his response to globalization. Jigme Thinley, Home Minister of Bhutan, enlarges on the idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an alternative economic agenda that his government is trying to pursue. And David Loy introduces his incisive analysis of institutionalized greed, ill will and delusion. This is the idea that the traditional root poisons can take on a collective dimension, and that they need to be addressed on that level as well as in our own hearts. All of these writers offer tools for clear thinking. Their ideas will be useful not only to those who are actively involved, but also to those who simply wish to make sense of politics, or figure out for whom to vote.
One of the most direct and thought-provoking pieces comes from the feminist political thinker bell hooks. She sees Buddhism as a means of letting go of all forms of ‘dominator thinking’. In order to do that, however, the institutions of Buddhism in the West need to transcend the ‘politics of race and class exclusion’ with which they themselves are permeated.
Most of the contributors focus on issues that may arise for the practitioner who might engage in politics, or who might even in some small way wish to be a positive influence. What if, for example, I find myself consumed by anger – how do I not bring more rage into the world? There is a wealth of practical wisdom in this book on that subject from which to draw. Pema Chodron, Ken Jones, Ezra Bayda, and Rita Gross all speak from many years of personal experience and give very useful from-the-heart advice and reflections on cultivating patience and non-enmity. These are teachings we need to constantly remind ourselves of if we really want to break the cycle of reaction, polarization, and revenge.
Other questions may arise. I want to change the world, but where do I start? Do what you care about, advises Stephanie Kaza. How do I know what is the right action in a situation? Don’t be afraid to stay with ‘not knowing’, advises Bernie Glassman. And do I protest like Allen Ginsberg or engage in the system to transform it, as advocated by Chogyam Trungpa? Do whatever works, suggests Joseph Goldstein – whatever helps you to cultivate mindfulness, compassion and wisdom.
Some of the contributions paint a picture of what a politically engaged Buddhist might be like. Charles Johnson describes the ideal as someone who is ‘peace embodied – nonviolent, dispassionate, empathic, without attachment to recognition or results. David Loy identifies the three important Buddhist contributions as spiritual practice, nonviolence and the humility that comes from a sense that our liberation is inseparable from that of all others. And from the Order of Interbeing come the fourteen mindfulnesses, or political precepts. These are very practical guidelines for involvement in the world. Any of these chapters would be worthy of careful study, particularly by any group of engaged practitioners.
There is a still deeper level of questioning underlying all of the contributions to this book. What can it mean to live in a world of great suffering and danger? How can I seek happiness and peace in such a time? How do I even stay sane? Occasionally such questioning comes to the fore, as in Margaret Wheatley’s ‘four freedoms’. From her own years of practice, during which she has borne witness to much suffering, she describes how she has learned to practice being free from hope, free from fear, free from safety and free from self. Somewhere beyond these is the place we need to be coming from. There lies the wisdom that does not seek results and yet contains the most potential for change. The most poignant glimpse of it, containing, perhaps, the crux of the whole book, comes through a passing quotation from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche – ‘when you recognise the empty nature, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns, uncontrived and effortless.’
Akuppa (John Wigham) is a member of the Western Buddhist Order and currently works as a prison chaplain. He has worked in local government on environmental policy, and in the 1990s served as a Council member for the Labour Party in his home city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England. He continues to be involved in environmental campaigning and runs retreats and workshops on eco-Buddhism. He is the author of “Touching the Earth: A Buddhist Guide to Saving the Planet.”